You might wonder what three Modernist buildings on the Upper East Side have to do with an organization that has historically been dedicated to preserving things, well, historical. But recently, preservation group Friends of the Upper East Side Historic District began looking into obtaining landmark status for three postwar buildings: the Manhattan House - an apartment building on East 66th Street that was the first "white brick" (or "grayish slab" to the untrained eye) building on the Upper East Side, built in 1950; Cinema I and II, built in 1962; and the Beekman Theatre and Block, built in 1952 - both of which were formerly art house theaters.
Even the group's vice president, Rita Chu, admits to the incongruous nature of the effort. "I was always a Beaux Arts snob," Chu laughs. "I was the stereotypical preservationist who thought anything modern was yuck."
But a few years ago, when a modern building went up on East 72nd Street and took the place of two brownstones, Chu - who as defender of all things old was anticipating feeling contempt for the new structure - found herself pleasantly surprised. "People said it was going to be awful, that it wouldn't fit into the block, but when I saw it, I had an appreciation for new buildings. It inspired me to go see what else outside of the historical district might be worthy of an award. There are modern buildings with distinctive character."
Since 1982, when both the Upper East Side Historic District and Friends (which was initially a spin-off of the Municipal Arts Society) were founded, Friends has sought to find distinctive character in neighborhoods and buildings on Manhattan's Upper East Side and protect them from development and demolition. "We consider ourselves the curators of the Upper East Side's architecture - be it old or modern, grand or humble," says Friends president Anne Millard.
The non-profit group currently oversees six historic districts and 125 individual landmarks within the boundaries of 59th and 106th Streets between Central Park and the East River. Friends works closely with - and frequently makes recommendations to - the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission, which must approve in advance any alteration, reconstruction or new construction affecting the designated areas. Friends also consults with the city's Planning and Zoning Commission and the Arts Commission, and Community Board 8.